I shouldn’t have complained about the walking. The pain in my feet had been annoying, but it was nothing compared to the agony of waiting. I continued touching the inhibitor, ensuring it hadn’t somehow slipped off. In a bunker underneath a farmhouse, it was impossible to tell the passage of time. Despite the clock giving away the minutes passing by, I believed it lied. As hours seemed to pass, only a quarter of an hour.
Lilith didn’t speak. For the casual onlooker, it’d almost appear as if she were meditating. She moved one crate to sit opposite of the door. There was enough firepower in the room to start a small war, but she hadn’t bothered looking at the containers. She might appear calm and collected, but her right hand held the knife, her knuckles occasionally turning white as she gripped the handle. To anybody else, she bided her time, but to me, she fought against anxiety. I didn’t like this version of Lilith.
I paced. Reading had been fruitless. Even going into the Phantasm to distract me instilled a fear I couldn’t react fast enough should I need to fight. The only thing worse than walking through a wasteland was walking the same twenty feet repeatedly. Death. Maybe that would be worse than waiting. I pushed the debate aside as I tried to focus on the positive.
The lights dimmed and returned red. I knelt down, pulling the blade from my ankle. The notion of Tracers had frightened Lilith. She stated they couldn’t infiltrate her mind. But me, I’m a liability. Would I know if a telepath was influencing my mind? Had I just grabbed the knife because somebody told me to? My heart raced, and I nearly yelped as I spun in circles, trying to decide if I was thinking clearly.
“If they’re efficient, you’ll never know they’re in your head.” Lilith had looked over her shoulder, watching my downward spiral. Her eyes followed my arm to the blade. I couldn’t tell if she approved or found it sad I was attempting to be like her.
“So, I shouldn’t worry?”
“You should worry. But there’s nothing you can do. There’s no point in dwelling on things outside your control.”
“Says the woman staring at a door.”
“If that door opens, then I’ll worry.” She lied. I didn’t out her deceit, but I it was obvious after traveling with her for days. Even Lilith’s facade of bravery had its limitations.
“I’m past worried. I’m trying not to have a heart attack.”
The lights flickered again. She held up her finger. “They’re on the property. The best you can do, sit down and breathe. Try to quiet your mind.”
If they were on the property, did that mean they had tracked us here? I wanted to believe that Lilith had attempted to lead them astray while hiding our footsteps. I put all my faith in this woman and I struggled to believe. With death lingering nearby, any assurances I had in her abilities as a runner vanished.
I sat down on a cot. Shoving the knife back into its sheath, I tried to quiet my frantic mind. I wanted to be transported to my happy place. For years that had been my father’s office, but with him gone… Even my apartment or work were now dangerous. There were so few places I could go without the fear of somebody hovering over my shoulder.
The Church of Nostradamus.
In Chicago, the cathedral had been purchased from the Catholic Church and converted. It maintained its history. Inside were stones carved with the passing of time and the rise and decline of a religion. The new owners wanted to preserve the history, and I found something about that endearing. The stained glass windows were massive and the colored light reaching the pews had captivated me on the days Visionary School attended.
I imagined myself strolling through the center aisle, fingers grazing each of the pews as I passed. The only thing that had changed was the altar. Religious artifact had been returned to the church. The symbols of the cross had been set aside and replaced with the symbol of a man kneeling. Each time I joined a thousand other parishioners for service, I wanted to believe sprinkled throughout church were Children. Was the lady with pink hair capable of flying? Or did the man in a business suit have the ability to lift a car? I’m sure we all wondered if they hid among us.
Sitting in the pews when there was no service was my favorite. The room was quiet enough you could almost hear the building breathe. My father would leave me in one of the first few pews as he met with the priest. In hindsight, they were probably talking about some secret matter he wanted to keep from me. But sitting there, I had time to stare at the giant pictures around the mezzanine and wonder where the artists got their inspiration.
The doors between the main gathering hall the lobby opened. The light pouring in from the outside made it impossible to make out the figures. Standing from the pew, I started walking backward, trying to imagine what could be happening. I tried opening my eyes, to find myself trapped. I couldn’t recall where I had been before, just that it was dark.
A man stepped forward, walking down aisle as he reached to a holster on his hip. I recognized the insignia, a Paladin. He was fit, rugged even, but the red light in his eyes gave away his ocular implants. He didn’t quite move like a normal person, almost jerky like the synthetics. Despite my fascination, I stepped backward as he attempted to close the distance.
Around his feet, two things moved about, bathed in ominous shadows. I thought of the Tracers, but how did I know that term? I couldn’t place my finger on it. When one of them reared up on their hind legs, I could see the chain from the Paladin’s waist swinging until it met the collar around the Tracer’s neck.
“This isn’t real,” I said. I wasn’t here. I knew that, but I couldn’t tell why. I touched my eyes, thinking perhaps I was wearing the goggles. Had I gone into the Phantasm? I had heard of people being unable to tell the difference between reality and virtual reality. I wanted to believe I was too smart for that to happen.
“Madison Walker.” The Paladin’s voice was deep. In the church, it echoed off the walls, making him sound as if he were forty feet tall. “You are accused of crimes against the Free Republic. Punishment is death.”
The Tracers jerked forward, pulling at their chains. I yelped, backing up. Weathered and bald, they foamed at the mouth. Their hands reached out, snarling as they clawed at the air. Smaller than an adult, I thought they might be children. Their eyes lacked any humanity. I couldn’t fathom what would make such a vile creature, but I didn’t want them to come close to me.
The Paladin dropped to one knee, yanking the chain. The Tracers didn’t seem concerned with him. They wanted me. He stroked the head of the one on the left, rubbing its skull as you would a dog. Then he reached for the collar. The clasp came off one and then the other.
I turned and ran. Moving down the aisle, I swerved left, moving through the narrow row of pews. I didn’t have any place I could go. There were doors near the altar, but if they were locked, those things would catch me. My heart beat rapidly, like at any moment it’d seize and stop working.
I reached the end of the row and spun right. The front of the church would have something, anything I could use to fight the Tracers. I had a moment to see one of them scurrying along the pews, jumping almost like a cat. The awkward way they ran, their chest low to the ground, made them even more frightful. They were like dogs. If they caught me, I didn’t think they’d stop and wait for the Paladin.
I reached the front and center stairs leading to the nave. I was going to keep running when one of the flags hanging with a metal pole caught my eye. Climbing the stairs two at a time, I jumped for the flag. Pulling it down, I slid the pole free and prepared for the Tracers. Having a weapon didn’t make me any more certain I’d survive. Even if I tackled these mutts, I still had a Paladin standing in the aisle, getting his jollies like a sadistic voyeur.
The first man-dog reached the stairs, slowing as it climbed the stairs on all fours. I was going to die in a Church of Nostradamus. Killed by creatures manufactured to hunt Children, the irony was not loss. For a moment, I glimpsed a woman standing in the aisle between me and the Paladin. Before I could call out for help, the Tracer lunged.
I poked with the curtain rod, hitting it in the chest. Drawing the pole back, I prepared to smash it over the thing’s head when I caught the other fiend trying to climb up the side of the nave. I bashed its head and then spun in time to be knocked to the ground. I held the pole at its neck, pushing it back as its jaws snapped. Drool splashed across my face.
Its teeth were crooked and discolored. It pulled back for a moment and then tried to lurch forward, gaining inches. Its hands pressed against my chest. The sunken eyes and emaciated cheeks were the least terrifying part. Its hands, placed just below my breasts, sank through the fabric, vanishing into my torso.
Beneath the surface of my skin, its fingers moved through my body. Slowly, it’s hand continued to sink until it reached the elbow. No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t stop it. Then its companion joined, standing by my head. There was no way to stop, no way to win against the two of them.
She stood on the stage. Tight braids made it easy to see the displeasure on her face. My heart raced, and I tried to call out for her help, but I couldn’t form words. The hand in my chest reached for my heart and steadily it slowed, then stopped. I was dying.
The woman shook her head, her mouth forming words. There was an eerie silence falling over the church as the room turned black.
The woman stood in front of me, kneeling, her hand resting on my face. She gave me another light jostle, and I backed away, pressed against the wall. I looked for the man-dogs, certain they were hiding in the shadows. I inspected the corners of the room and caught sight of the crate sitting in front of the door. Lilith had been guarding…
“Oh gods,” I tried not to cry, but it was inevitable, “it was horrible.”
Lilith put a hand on each side of my face and stood close, her eyes locking with mine. “You’re here with me. Focus on me. Listen to my voice, Madison. They’re not real.”
“It reached inside me—“
“They’re not real.” Stern, calm, forceful, Lilith tried to connect. The only thing I could see was the snarling face and the hand snaking its way through my chest cavity. “Think about the book. Think about the hard drive. Think about why we’re out here.”
“My—“ I froze as the words caught in my mouth. She shook me again. “My father.”
I leaned forward, my arms wrapped around her. I didn’t care if I violated her personal space. I needed to feel the warmth of another person, a real sane human being. Lilith wrapped her arms around me, squeezing me.
“They’re gone,” she said, “they’ve left. We’re safe.”
“No,” I whispered, “we’re not.”